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Copyright © 1998 by Andrew N. Adler. All rights reserved.
Irving’s “Rip Van Winkle” provides an intriguing test case for an analysis of Fredric Jameson’s “Marxism and inner form” (Jameson 401-16): Comparable to science fiction, the story unfolds within a seemingly basic genre (folk tale). But, unlike Jameson’s examples of science fiction and of Hemingway’s fiction, “Rip Van Winkle” explicitly propounds a fantasy about productivity and social life. Arguably, then, one need not excavate beneath various layers of censorship in this tale, for the “original” social experience (Jameson 404) remains at the surface: a desire to avoid overly taxing work and to loll around with colorful drinking buddies. I suggest, however, that the fable’s obvious mechanism to bring about such companionable leisure — supernatural translocation and transformation — conceals a dreary and all-pervasive capitalist enterprise. Despite surface indications to the contrary, nobody escapes even for a moment from an alienated routine. Specifically, Rip must continually interpret the concrete gestures of the ruling class and then appease that class. A Jamesonian reading helpfully reveals how this short story buries Rip’s daily servility beneath a magical aura. Yet I conclude this essay by showing how irony significantly undercuts such a reading and deconstructs Jameson’s notion of a stable “hierarchy of motivations” (which places an artwork’s commentary upon actual working conditions at the core of its concentric repressions) (409). This story’s outer form conforms to folk tale. It thus leads the uncritical reader through a highly gratifying battle to an anticipated happy ending. One scholar has detailed how most of Vladimir Propp’s folk-tale functions appear in the story, creating “its peculiar mixture of recognition-pleasure and mystery” (Brooke-Rose 131). According to Christine Brooke-Rose, Dame Van Winkle looms as a wicked stepmother figure, a manifestation of the real villain, Time, who will not yield Rip enough repose. Rip “transgresses” in a “non-serious” way, by refusing to work. In Propp’s terminology, Rip departs, is tested, receives magical aid in a task, struggles with his “identity,” and transfigures into a respected patriarch (129-30). Although Brooke-Rose concedes the “underdetermination” of the tale’s symbolism, she concludes that Irving has written “a typical American story of the hero opting out of society” (130). However, the first step in a Marxist reading discovers “seriousness” in Rip’s transgression: While not lazy, the protagonist dislikes any “profitable labour.” He “would never refuse to assist a neighbour even in the roughest toil,” but he will not perform his “family duty”
Adler 2 (Irving 30): That is, he will not willingly alienate his labor. He will not stockpile a capital surplus to bequeath his children a patrimony (30-31). (His son “belonged to nobody” because he “promised to inherit” his father’s “habits” — outmoded clothes and manners — rather than money (31).) Dame Van Winkle represents the voice of capitalism, the ideological pressure that forces Rip from his “perfect contentment” and into a series of instructive encounters with the ruling class: He ostensibly escapes her, first, to the “club of sages” presided over by Nicholaus Vedder; then, into pristine Nature; third, to drink and cavort with Henry Hudson and his crew; fourth (albeit twenty years later), to the new village leader’s posse; and, finally, to the realm of serene storytelling. Yet, as hinted above, Rip never truly eludes alienated labor but rather, in each setting, he tries to learn the procedure for accumulating “symbolic capital.” Specifically, to borrow further from Bourdieu, the story teaches that moods of powerful people change arbitrarily and that you must accurately read these moods in individuals’ mechanical gestures. If you can indulge the powerful and do their bidding, then you can perhaps become one of them and prosper. This reading refuses to attach overarching importance to Rip’s time warp and “identity crisis.” Instead, significance lies primarily in the fact that a ruling class dictates the collective life both before and after the Revolution, both in the village and in the forest. First, consider “the patriarch” Vedder, who owns the inn where his “junto” assembles and whose opinions “completely control.” Rip can avoid his wife and remain one of Vedder’s “adherents” if and only if he follows Vedder around, anticipating and placating Vedder’s mood swings. Vedder, though, rarely speaks. Instead, he shifts to avoid the sun, “so that the neighbours could tell the hour by his movements as accurately as by a sun dial.” Moreover, to those in the know, he “perfectly” expresses anger with short, frequent puffs from his pipe, and he conveys pleasure with slow, “placid clouds” and vapor curls of smoke (32). So long as Rip correctly divines these precisely-calibrated gestures, he is permitted some agreeable scope through harmless, self-important male bonding. “Obsequious and conciliating,” Rip contributes to “endless stories about nothing” (30, 32). So long as he does not contradict the leader, Rip feels that his opinions matter. Yet when Dame Van Winkle flushes him out of the tavern, Rip’s “only alternative” is to
Adler 3 retreat into the woods with his well-oiled gun and trusty male dog. One recent commentator has compared Irving to Hemingway in this respect. Rip and Francis Macomber “ultimately assert their masculinity through the hunt — the paradigm of masculine control” (Catalano 112). Actually, just as in Jameson’s reading of Hemingway, we find the hunt in “Rip Van Winkle” delineated both as non-alienated (i.e., non-“profitable”) labor and as sport (Irving 30, 32; Jameson 412). But, in both Hemingway and Irving, the “incomparable moments of plenitude in nature” (410) become spoiled along with the mystified fantasy upon which these moments feed. In particular, Rip’s escapist safari sours because the Catskill territory, described as patriarchal, changes moods from moment to moment and thus suddenly threatens him with uncomfortable work. In the opening lines of the story, the scenery evaluates Rip’s social status. He has “inherited but little” of the gallant fame of his aristocratic ancestors. In contrast, the Catskill Mountains “are a dismembered branch of the great Appalachian family, and are seen away to the west of the river swelling up to noble height and lording it over the surrounding country” (Irving 29). Similarly, the Hudson River is itself “lordly” and “majestic” (33). But, in language strikingly similar to the description of Vedder’s variable indications of mood, the mountains’ colors change “every hour of the day.” To the initiated, the assorted hues, glows, and vapors become “perfect barometers” of the weather (29). To Rip, who cannot yet clearly read these regal but arbitrary transformations, and who thus hears echoes of his own voice and gun when he should rather listen for the echoes of thunder that herald “transient thunder showers” and watch for dusk that foretells his wife’s “terrors” (32-35), Nature remains “fun” only for brief periods. Hence, portraits of deep untamed beauty (e.g., 32-33) switch abruptly to menacing vistas, such as the lonely glen “filled with fragments from the impending cliffs” (33). Rip eventually draws back from the alienation that patriarchal Nature has established for the unwary, “working his toilsome way through thickets of birch, sassafras, and witch hazel...” (35). Next, when Henry Hudson’s ancient crew beckons to Rip, readers may grasp an optimistic surface rendering of male communion, hunting, drinking, and sports. But, on closer inspection, the Hudson crew mimics the village’s unsavory mode of production. The weird strangers stand nasty, silent, melancholy, and haughty. They “hail” Rip (33; see Althusser 301)
Adler 4 and make him their servant, and he “obeys with fear and trembling.” When thirsty, he must steal drinks from them “when no eye was fixed upon him,” and he suspects that they steal his property, too (Irving 34-35). Moreover, the unpleasant labor they force upon Rip has a mystified purpose: During the whole time Rip and his companion had laboured on in silence, for though the former marveled greatly what could be the object of carrying a keg of liquor up this wild mountain, yet there was something strange and incomprehensible about the unknown, that inspired awed and checked familiarity. (34) Also, the mountain society has a shrewd capitalist ruler, Hudson, the “Commander.” He greedily keeps a “guardian eye” over his “enterprize” and the “great city” named after him (40). As in town and when alone in the wilderness, Rip’s only hope of solace in the presence of this “profoundly silent,” grand man resides in his ability accurately to read non-verbal gestures. The crew “made signs,” and Rips tries to comply (33, 34). Upon awakening, the confused Rip returns home. His bizarre transfiguration conceals that little has really changed in his absence. The portrait of George III has been cleverly touched up to depict George Washington, but the class system remains intact. The new patriarch (the “selfimportant old gentleman” at the tavern), however, speaks in a “jargon” at first incomprehensible to Rip, and the protagonist almost finds himself arrested as a traitor when he mouths his accustomed token of servility, “God bless the King!” (37, 38). Nevertheless, Rip skillfully learns to interpret and to acquire the gestures of success. First, while he walks back to town, people stoke their chins when they see him. “The constant recurrence of this gesture induced Rip involuntarily to do the same” (36). Already, people instruct at the non-verbal level, and consequently Rip discovers that his beard has grown radically (pun intended). Later, the villagers repeatedly use signals to evade Rip’s notice (39). Rip wisely persists in posturing as servile: “The poor man humbly assured them that he meant no harm” (38), and whenever anyone recalls his late wife, Rip gestures acceptably: “[H]e shook his head, shrugged his shoulders and cast up his eyes; which might pass either for an expression of resignation to his fate or joy at his deliverance” (41).1 He thus “resumes his old habits,” takes
This represents the exact same expression that Rip showed his wife as a reply to all of her lectures about his idleness. “He shrugged his shoulders, shook his head, cast up his eyes, but said nothing” (31).
Adler 5 pains to “get into the regular track of gossip,” and even more fully learns the codes of capitalism. Rip becomes a “free citizen” not through political revolution but because his daughter and son-in-law keep a “snug well furnished” bourgeois household, so that Rip need not undertake “real” work (40; cf. Jameson 405). Still, stockpiled property alone does not gain Rip his ultimate role as reverenced patriarch. Rather, he rises by telling stories of a particular kind. William Hedges notes that the tension in “Rip Van Winkle” between artistic imagination and industriousness “finally becomes an artful comment on authorship or storytelling in a rapidly expanding democratic and commercial society” (xvii-xix). True, but we should not overlook the possibility that self-censorship comprises one reason for Rip’s (and Irving’s) material success as author. Initially, other characters observe that Rip’s autobiography “varies on some points,” but it “at last settle[s] down precisely” in a way that satisfies the majority. A few remain unconvinced, but a judge certifies the “official version,”2 distilling an acceptable history “beyond the possibility of doubt.” Once people start to believe Rip, he consolidates power. After others begin to perceive him as a “very venerable” old man, “so perfectly rational on every other point,” then “no conscientious person could refuse to take this into the bargain” (Irving 41). We may speculate that Rip’s account of his rambles gained him official approval only after he infused it with enough glittering “surface diversion” (Jameson 404). Then, the “rising generation” of “henpecked” workers, when they feel miserable, recall and imbibe Rip’s fiction: They wish “that they might have a quieting draught out of Rip Van Winkle’s flagon” (Irving 41). Thus, Rip’s charming narrative of the natural and supernatural is metaphorically his alcohol, the quieting opiate he consumed in the wilderness and now dispenses to other poor slobs. In any event, Rip has matured at the game of “assisting” people “at their sports,” of enduring their “trickery,” and of telling “ghost stories.” He first served such functions for children (30), and in later years, he endures and assists (in sequence) Vedder, Nature, Hudson, and the new village chieftain. During all of this time, unhappy though he was, Rip never “opted out” of society. Instead, he ascertained how to opt into respectable society, by at least feigning to serve and support it, and by imitating his way to higher rank.
The justice of the peace, by virtue of his exalted position, verifies testimony as true simply by marking an “X” as his signature, presumably because he is illiterate (see 41).
Adler 6 * * * * * * * Having set forth this analysis, I do not believe that it has revealed the “original message” of “Rip Van Winkle.” Initially, I doubt Jameson’s assertion that experiences touching upon socio-economic organization always lie closer to the kernel of life and of art. Rather, for instance, one could find “genuine” significance in Irving’s short story by focusing on an individualoriented psychology of creativity, maturation, gender relations, or farcicality. In fact, while he half-heartedly tries to generalize (403, 407), Jameson even more dubiously assumes that “original experience” will almost always concern labor and its discontents. Yet even if we concede the truth of this Marxist assumption, the “economic sub-text” of “Rip Van Winkle” actually points in many contradictory directions. My above interpretation coheres, if at all, only by treating a polyvocal work as univocal. For a careful reader, though, a sophisticated folk tale will “motivate” ambiguous “diversions” at many overlapping levels. For example, Irving’s work “cries out” for an examination of textual self-reference (to use Jameson’s expression (416)) due to its complex framing devices: Irving writes about “Geoffrey Crayon” rehearsing what he (Crayon) finds in a posthumous manuscript of “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” who had interviewed natives, who discussed Rip, who repeats his yarn to everyone who will listen. (Also, the fictitious historian Peter Vanderdonk corroborates Rip’s anecdote (Irving 40).) The reader can not possibly ignore this structure and collapse the narrators back into one another, because each has his own subtle personality and perspective. Obviously, “Geoffrey Crayon is not just a fancy name for Washington Irving” (Hedges xv). Each narrative level comically obsesses over the next level’s “unquestionable authority” and “historical accuracy” (Irving 28; cf. 41). The intended reader or narratee cannot miss the point that some of the storyline is false. But, once we accept the invitation to read the text ironically, no “deepest subject” or “essential content” can claim immunity from inversion — or perhaps double or triple inversion. It becomes impossible to identify precisely what is being concealed or foregrounded.3 Censorship may reside anywhere in the text — any narrative level,
Even with reference to an undistinguished science fiction movie, it seems pointless to ask whether we are watching “surface horror” and “deeper joy,” or instead, “surface joy” and “deeper horror.” Every spectator will experience elements of both emotions simultaneously, and one can argue
Adler 7 any utterance. Although I do not have space in this essay for a discussion of Irving, Crayon, Knickerbocker, or Knickerbocker’s sources, I can safely affirm that any one of these culprits could have a motive to sabotage my reading and showcase Rip’s reaction against his society’s economic demands as heroic and successful. For, each narrator self-mockingly hides, as it were, behind a conservative façade. Placed in the midst of so many voices armed with irony, a reader may suspect virtually any “serious” phrase in the tale. To choose one at random: When Rip waited upon Henry Hudson, the terrified Rip’s “knees smote together” (34). What if Knickerbocker’s source embellished the event, adding this hyperbolic vignette to complicate what was (in Rip’s rendition) a ceremony of men bonding in jovial (mock-solemn) equality? Then, we would not know whether to take as serious or as pretext the intimation that Rip’s apparent serfdom merely obscures a more basic psychological reality of liberation and mutual respect inherent in masculine rituals. If one narrator subverts another by exaggerating Rip’s oppression (or cowardice, or feigning thereof), then I would need completely to realign my deep-structure explanation of the motivations and methods of censorship. When presented with a piece of fiction laden with suggestive irony, a critic cannot help realizing that his or her interpretation is just that — an interpretation, one among many. And, while no postmodern literary theorist can then resist arguing that the work’s deepest meaning refers to its own production, even that parry adds little to our comprehension of such a polyvocal piece as “Rip Van Winkle.” This short story does gesture about work, leisure, and literary production; in that way, pace Jameson, it demonstrates that fiction with neither realistic nor modernist affiliations can still overtly proclaim its “traces of labor” (see Jameson 407-08, 413, 416). Nevertheless, in so proclaiming its textual materiality, “Rip Van Winkle” may foreground not its “essential content” but just a red herring for humorless academics.
forever about which element represents the more sublime or sublimated “distortion” or “projection.”
Adler 8 Works Cited Althusser, Louis. “Ideology & Ideological State Apparatuses.” Literary Theory: An Anthology. Ed. Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 1998. 294-304. Brooke-Rose, Christine. “The Readerhood of Man.” The Reader in the Text. Ed. Susan R. Suleiman and Inge Crosman. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980. 120-48. Catalano, Susan M. “Henpecked to Heroism: Placing Rip Van Winkle and Francis Macomber in the American Renegade Tradition.” The Hemingway Review 17 (1998): 111-17. Hedges, William L. Introduction. The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.. By Washington Irving. New York: Penguin Classics, 1988. vii-xxii. Irving, Washington. “Rip Van Winkle.” The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent.. 1st ed. 1819-20. Introd. William L. Hedges. New York: Penguin Classics, 1988. 28-42. Jameson, Fredric. “Marxism and Inner Form.” Marxism and Form: Twentieth-Century Dialectical Theories of Literature. 1971. 401-16.